TRAVIS KING: U.S. officials are trying to piece together why a soldier entered North Korea



CNN

A day before crossing into North Korea, Private Travis King He texted his US military handlers that he had arrived at his gate at Seoul’s Incheon Airport and was preparing to board a plane back to the US.

King, a junior enlisted soldier, was assigned to U.S. Forces Korea He faced assault charges in South Korea and was due to be discharged from the US Army upon his return to Fort Bliss, Texas.

But when he cleared customs, he did not board the plane as scheduled on Monday, US officials told CNN. His entourage could not accompany him to the gate to verify that he boarded. Instead, he had booked a tour Tuesday with a private company of the Joint Security Area, inside the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.

King checked in on a Dallas-bound American Airlines flight but reported a missing passport and did not board.

“He went through all the security points until the boarding gate, but he told the flight staff that his passport was missing,” an Incheon airport official told CNN. The official said the flight attendants then escorted him out to the departure side.

On Monday, the American Airlines flight departed Incheon at 6:36 p.m., the airline said.

“He returned to the departure side of the airport at 7:02 pm,” the official said. American Airlines declined to comment to CNN on the incident.

If there are urgent circumstances for passengers that prevent them from going through the immigration process and boarding the flight, they must withdraw the procedure under the approval of the immigration office.

While on a tour inside the demilitarized zone the next day, King ran unexplained across the demarcation line into North Korea, an eyewitness on the same tour and U.S. officials familiar with the case told CNN. Unlike the heavily fortified zone, which is 160 miles long and 2.5 miles wide, the actual border line between North and South Korea within the JSA does not contain a physical barrier.

King first tried to enter Panmunjok Hall, a North Korean facility in the Joint Security Area, a US official said. But the front door was locked — so he ran to the back of the building, at which point he sped off in a van and was chased away by North Korean guards, the official said.

“Hold him!” According to eyewitness Sarah Leslie, a soldier on the South Korean side shouted. But it was too late.

“He was going so fast, we were so close to the border and by then he was gone,” added Leslie.

It wasn’t until Tuesday, when King failed to arrive at Fort Bliss, that the U.S. military first realized he was missing. South Korean immigration officials also confirmed to the U.S. that King did not board the flight, the U.S. official told CNN.

Sarah Leslie/Reuters

In this handout photo, U.S. Private Travis D., during a tour of the tightly controlled Joint Security Area (JSA) on the border of North and South Korea, in the truce village of Panmunjom, South Korea, on July 18, 2023. King, bottom left, wears black shirt and black hat.

Officials across the U.S. government are trying to piece together what might have prompted King, an American citizen, to enter one of the most hostile countries on Earth deliberately and without prior permission.

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On Wednesday, the White House said it was still working to determine King’s whereabouts and condition.

“We’re still gathering all the facts and it’s still early days,” press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. “The administration will continue to work to ensure his safety and return Private King to us and his family,” he said.

He said the administration was working with Sweden and the South Korean government on the matter. Sweden usually represents US interests in North Korea, as the US and North Korea do not have diplomatic relations.

Officials said the U.S. military has tried to reach out directly to the North Korean government to resolve the issue, but they have yet to hear back. The U.S. believes he is still in North Korean custody, but they have no details on his well-being or whether he is alive.

King “ran across the demilitarized zone in the Joint Security Area, was picked up by the North Koreans, and we have no contact at this time,” John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said at the Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday. “But we are still carrying out our investigation to find out what happened.”

A week before crossing the border, King was released from detention in South Korea, where he served 50 days of hard labor, security officials told CNN.

The conviction appears to stem from an incident in October 2022 in which King allegedly shoved and punched a victim in the face several times at a club in Mapo-gu, Seoul, according to a court document from the Seoul Western District Court. He was charged with assault in September and subsequently transferred to the US Military Police, but those charges were eventually dropped.

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“His assault case was similar to other cases I’ve represented young men who were intoxicated,” a South Korean lawyer representing King told CNN. His impression of King was that he “looked like a normal guy in his early 20s.”

Before King was detained, a security official told CNN that King had been found guilty during a military court hearing in South Korea related to the attack and other charges. King was demoted, the official said, though it was unclear whether it came before or after the court-martial.

King’s mother, Claudine Gates, told ABC on Tuesday that she was “shocked” that King had entered North Korea.

“I can’t see Travis doing anything like that,” Gates told ABC, adding that he heard his son say several days ago that he was going back to his base at Fort Bliss.

At the time of his rotation in South Korea, King was out of his enlistment and assigned to the 6th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Brigade, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, out of Fort Bliss, Texas, Army spokesman Bryce Dubey said.

His military awards include the National Defense Service Medal, the Korean Defense Service Medal, and the Foreign Service Ribbon — typical decorations awarded to soldiers of his rank and experience.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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